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Rich Aston (left), and Pete Hoffman

Boeing products, such as the 787 Dreamliner airplane, demonstrate the importance of systems engineering, which integrates multiple disciplines and specialty groups into the creation of a quality product that meets the customer's needs.

Call it a mindset more than a process. What’s been referred to as a SPOC (small private online course) is really about innovation and advancing a systems way of thinking.

Together, Boeing, NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have forged a unique partnership to offer one—an online, four-course, architecture and systems engineering program that’s primarily designed to boost the effectiveness of engineers and their careers. It’s also expected to provide engineers with skills that are becoming increasingly valuable in the aerospace industry.

The MIT SPOC is the first implementation of a Space Act Agreement that Boeing and NASA signed in 2015. Through the agreement, Boeing and NASA are collaborating in secondary and post-secondary education to develop a skilled workforce to maintain the United States’ technical leadership in the world. 

The arrangement is attractive to Boeing because systems engineering is a key method that the company uses to develop products and work with suppliers and customers, said Christi Gau Pagnanelli, director of Systems Engineering for Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

“Model-based systems engineering is a relatively newer technique to systems engineering, and it’s important that we get as many of our engineers as we can to adopt it because it’s the way our future customers want to go,” she said. “We hope (through the MIT program) to get a broader understanding of what model-based systems engineering is, and why we need it. In one way or another, all engineers do a little systems engineering, because we all work on complex systems. A broad-based awareness of systems engineering would be very beneficial to how we run our programs and develop our products.”

In a promotional video for the MIT program, Gau Pagnanelli points out that as aerospace products become increasingly integrated and complex, the way engineers manage system architecture is also becoming more complicated and critical than ever before. “Getting it right the first time is vital to keeping people safe as well as moving forward to reach our goals,” she said.

Students have the option to take the complete program of four courses to earn a professional certificate from MIT, or they may take classes individually.

The courses range from four to six weeks, contain about five modules each, and involve a time commitment of three to five hours a week. Students learn online, when and where they like, but must complete each module within the assigned time.

The four courses in the certificate program are:

  • Architecture of Complex Systems
  • Models in Engineering
  • Model-Based Systems Engineering: Documentation and Analysis
  • Quantitative Methods in Systems Engineering.

The first class began on Sept. 12, and the four-course program continues through March 12, 2017. The program is expected to be offered again in 2017.

Through online instruction, students have access to top-notch research from MIT’s faculty, combined with the expertise and hands-on knowledge of professionals from industry, and NASA. Using industry case studies and the latest in systems thinking from MIT, students gain foundational knowledge in complex systems, analysis of complex systems, and model management that will enable them improve how they approach and solve complex technical challenges.

The program, titled Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems, represents “the largest investment by MIT in the online (educational) realm,” said Bruce Cameron, MIT’s faculty director of the MBSE certificate program.

MIT has been “experimenting” with online education for many years, and only recently has begun applying it in an actual, professional education setting, he said.

In 2012, MIT began a joint venture with Harvard University to create an online instructional platform called EdX, which is being used for this program.

MIT has been working with Boeing to develop the systems engineering program for the past year and a half. Though Boeing helped organize the content, several other companies have become involved to provide a diverse array of content, examples and case studies.

The overall purpose “is to grow systems engineering and modeling competencies of engineers,” he explained. “What frames this course is that we (meaning the technical community) build a lot of complex systems. For complex systems, no one really holds the whole system in his or her head. If you look at all that’s involved in complex systems, we kind of get lucky when they work as well as they do. The key to getting the guesswork out of that is getting the architecture right. There’s no guarantee, but you’re much better off with a system that has a good architecture, because it’s much more likely to meet the needs of its stakeholders.”

The courses have a lot of discussion and interaction among students working in teams and with subject-matter experts and faculty, which is intentional, Cameron said. “We’re looking to mix it up as students go through. We’re pushing the idea of active learning.”

“The value of this course is that it helps you be a more effective engineer today and tomorrow,” Cameron added. “It’s not about credit or promotion – it’s about your effectiveness as an engineer.”

Instructions on how to register for a course – or the full certificate program – are available on an MIT website.

    Boeing and NASA: Partners meeting a shared challenge

    Boeing and NASA are co-signers of a Space Act Agreement in which they pool their resources to “motivate and educate the next generation of aerospace innovators to develop a workforce and provide the skills required to maintain America’s technical leadership position in the world.” The agreement, signed in 2015, involves collaboration in secondary and post-secondary education.

    Two people instrumental in developing educational programs under the SAA are Charles Camarda, a NASA astronaut and senior advisor for engineering development at NASA Langley Research Center, and Michael Richey, Boeing Associate Technical Fellow.

    Both have developed online, collaborative educational programs in which participants have worked on solving actual aerospace design problems, and they both believe that such an approach is the key to providing instruction that meets the needs of government and industry.

    The Boeing-NASA agreement started with a recognition that they share a common problem.

    “We looked at NASA’s demographics and they’re very similar to ours,” Richey said. “There are a lot of knowledge skills and competencies that are transitioning out and then there’s a high cost of traditional education. NASA’s cycle of innovation and the skills they need are a little different than Boeing’s, but the basics to the problem are the same. So the (agreement) is just a way to say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together, so why don’t we partner?’”

    He added that this partnership plays a critical role in workforce development, since feedback from industry and government experts can help provide competency-based guidelines for academic programs. This certificate represents the true partnership between Boeing, NASA, EdX and MIT, which has brought together subject matter experts in systems engineering, learning sciences, instructional designers, and data analytics specialists.

    “The MIT courses represent our first output that we collaborate on together as part of this agreement,” Camarda said. “It’s very interesting. We have excellent faculty from MIT working with experts from NASA and Boeing to show students how they apply what they’re learning. I think that’s really the key to maintaining interest among students.”

    Why Systems Engineering?

    What is systems engineering, and why is it so important to MIT, NASA, Boeing and other aerospace companies?

    The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) defines it as “an interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.”

    INCOSE goes on to say that systems engineering “integrates all the disciplines and specialty groups into a team effort forming a structured development process that proceeds from concept to production to operation. Systems engineering considers both the business and the technical needs of all customers with the goal of providing a quality product that meets the user needs.”

    INCOSE also describes a seven-step systems engineering process that involves stating the problem, investigating alternatives, modeling the system, integration, launching the system, and assessing performance.

    Systems engineers, then, have to see the big picture – all aspects of it.

    “Systems engineers have to be the advocates for the whole system,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief technology officer and senior vice president of Engineering, Test & Technology. “They really have to be the ones who understand where the margin is, understand the system performance, and then advocate for the entire system.”

    By Daryl Stephenson